Seeing a mother breastfeeding, even if nothing shows, makes some people uncomfortable. That feeling is unlikely to change, at least in the short term. I believe this happens when people grow up without seeing breastfeeding as part of daily life. Our culture associates breasts with sex, not with feeding babies.
Even if the mother exposes more than necessary, the uproar over public breastfeeding exceeds concern over women who wear skimpy outfits. Clearly the breastfeeding itself sets people off.
While acknowledging that women have the legal and moral right to nurse publicly without interference, anonymous blogger DovBear maintained that if breastfeeding makes others uncomfortable the mother should make the effort to move. He wrote: “My rule is: When possible don’t make people experience things they don’t want to experience. Why is that offensive to you?”
I do find it offensive when people say breastfeeding mothers should leave the room.
I’ve nursed 6 children and moved plenty of times when I sensed it might make people uncomfortable. I did not want to risk dirty looks or confrontation while holding a baby, or gossip about not being “nice” or modest enough. But I resented interrupting my activities. I missed the jokes and news at social events, planning sessions at meetings, and valuable material at lectures. Sometimes I “only” missed fresh air, a pretty view, or seeing people walk by. But those things mattered to me—otherwise why leave the house?
Moving also brings logistical problems. A mother has to take her older children, stroller, belongings, and by-now unhappy baby to locate another spot. The private spot, if it exists, could be far away, cold or hot, smelly or unhygienic, noisy or lacking a chair, or not suitable for toddlers.
Let me offer this tongue-in-cheek way of ensuring equality between nursing mothers and the rest of the adult population. If a breastfeeding mother and her baby attend a meeting or get-together, stop when the baby gets hungry. When the mother “politely” leaves, the other participants should also find quiet spots to sit alone until the baby is done. Then everyone can return to continue the meeting. Does this sound viable, or like a waste of time? But that’s how some breastfeeding mothers feel about leaving the room to nurse. Except no one waits for them to come back.
When people say or think that a woman should leave the room to breastfeed they imply that they don’t value her input, her skills, or her time. They won’t miss her when she’s off in the closet or bathroom stall for twenty or thirty minutes. When she returns she may need to nurse the baby again. Or everyone else may have gone home. This is the price she pays for her “consideration” of others. And have those others considered her?
Breastfeeding, along with pregnancy or menstruation, are facts of life. We no longer live in an age when women hide themselves away when these things happen. Suggesting that a breastfeeding mother is rude, because she chooses not to exclude herself from a business or social event, is misogynistic.
Mothers in the US have the legal right (and in Israel, an implicit right) to breastfeed wherever they and their babies are allowed. Protecting people’s rights also extends to how we frame discussions about these rights. A breastfeeding mother is not ignoring the feelings of others, “making a statement,” or “whipping out” her breasts. She is just feeding her baby. She deserves the same consideration as a bottle-feeding mother or any parent caring for their children.
Thanks to Lisa Watson Wilkins for use of her photo.